Let me tell you a tale. It begins innocently enough. I was stationed in one of those seemingly endless, dull stretches of the early 21st – you know the kind? Nothing much of anything new was happening and too much of everything else. Scouring the bookshops. Forget stolen glimpses at Jane Austen’s notebooks – it’s still the bookshops where all the real work happens. I was in Oldham, one of those small hilly Northern towns that peers so anxiously down into Manchester’s smoggy fastness. It was uncannily like home. In the right light that poisonous fog was not so very dissimilar from the silvery mist in which my home city swathes itself from time to time. And its sunsets. Which is what I mean by innocently enough. Anywhere else, I think my training would have held. In some less familiar or more volatile corner of the world – in D.D.R before the Wall fell, or D.R.C before New Congo rose to greatness – I’d never have done it. Confession? Justification? Hard to tell.
Here’s what happened. The real deal. Straight from the horse’s mouth.
I was walking down Union St. in my ghost-like way, glancing at the real-estate agents. Noting that the property boom hadn’t yet found its way to this pocket of the North. It would, of course – barely two years later, yuppies would be moving into the refurbished mills. Cafes serving exotic and piquant Mediterranean specialities would be springing up like mushrooms. But right then, you could still buy a quasi-semi-detached two-bed terrace in Oldham, with a little front garden and a paved rear yard for £82, 250. No chain. Vacant possession. Ideal for a first-time buyer or young family.
That ad in the window has frozen itself into my memory. If I close my eyes I can still conjure it before me, an ad, in a Ryder & Dutton window on a grey and clammy Oldham day. That last split second of peace before a flash of peacock blue caught my eye.
I turned, caught by that flash of colour. A little girl, maybe five, in a bright shalwar kameez racing out of the estate agents, looking over her shoulder as she tore across the narrow pavement. Straight into a lorry’s path. I didn’t think. I just grabbed her as she went flying by and knocked her down. A blaring of horns and not half a second later, her mother and father were there, terror giving way to frantic relief as they realised their daughter was still alive on the pavement not dead beneath a lorry. The girl began to cry and her mother knelt down to gather her up, hugs interspersed with a fierce scolding. “Nazia Akhtar! Don’t you ever run out into the street like that again! Thank God you tripped. What do they teach you? Always look! Always, always look!” Her Dad standing frozen, ashen grey, like he’d seen a ghost. Which he hadn’t.
I dare say I looked much the same.
Unnoticed, I walked away, turned the corner, and promptly threw up. You’re really not supposed to do that sort of thing, especially in public, but in the broader scheme of things it seemed trivial. No-one saw anyway, I think. And then, filled with a sick horror that no amount of upchucking in the gutter could expurgate, I went home – or rather, back to the ground floor flat, messy and book-lined that marked both my fragile fingerhold on the 21st and my livelihood.
Once inside, I moved with a deliberation that belied sheer panic. Methodically, I washed myself thoroughly until I was clean again. And I prayed. All day. I prayed for forgiveness, for mercy, for a future and the courage to face it. At last I rose, stiff, numb and exhausted.
I set and opened the Gate. And moved through it to find out my fate.
My turn to be frozen with relief. Edward came to greet me “Hello love,” he said, “ I was just taking Fazal to soccer.” He must have seen my face then because he stopped short of kissing me hello. “What’s wrong?” he said, “You look like you’ve been through the wars. Did you finish your shift?”
“No,” I said. “I couldn’t.” I shook my head, trying to clear it of a strange fogginess.
For the first time ever, I’d cut a shift short. That was OK. You’re allowed to pull out early every once in a while – the Authority knows the loneliness of our work and makes allowances. Edward called Emma to ask her if she minded running Fazal to soccer with her two. He sat me down and poured me a glass of iced water. “What happened?” he asked. I’d been looking forward to that posting. “I thought I had made a terrible mistake” I said, “But everything is alright now.”
And indeed the world seemed in all wises and respects the same as it had been when I left for work. He hugged me. “Do you need to report it?” he asked quietly.
“No” I said – “No – it’s OK. I’ll go back in a few days. I just need a rest. I got confused.”
And I did wonder, sitting there, sipping my drink, still stiff, whether I’d imagined it –whether I’d really pulled that girl back from the brink, or just been a ghostly witness to a lucky escape. Could she have tripped at just the right time?
But in my heart, I knew that she had not – my shin was bruised where her sharp little shoes had hit me, and I could remember the feel of her smooth dark hair. But my world was still there, unchanged, unscathed. The next day, once I’d slept, I got on the computer and went looking for Nazia. I wasn’t very hopeful – pre-Conflagration data is so patchy and Akhtar a common name in Oldham at that time, but it was worth a try. And there she was. Nazia Akhtar. Not much, but enough to sketch her life.
The little girl in her peacock blue shalwar kameez had lived in Oldham all her life. She got married just out of school, at seventeen. She went to university in Manchester and completed her degree four years later, having taken a year off to care for her new-born daughter. She became an English teacher at one of the local sixth-form colleges and was a steward for a while in a teacher’s union.
She survived the Conflagration. Her husband and daughter did not. The first Census held after those terrible years listed her as a widow, living alone. She never remarried, but some years later fostered two children – a brother and sister. Orphaned. She died just before her fifty-fourth birthday of a heart condition common among survivors.
There you are. Nazia Akhtar’s life in 150 words. And I must admit that I wondered whether I wouldn’t have preferred to be knocked down by a lorry – to never have lived my life – than to lose Edward and Fazal as she did her husband and child. I’m not sure I did Nazia any favours.
Citing exhaustion, I stayed home a few more days. The bruise on my leg healed. I watched for signs, for hints of the world’s ending. I saw none.
And so, I put it down to ‘one of those things’ and thanking God, I returned to work. Back to my patient dredging of the past. To the careful memorising of forgotten text. I never stopped thinking about it exactly, but I put it from the front of my mind. I did not go looking for Nazia and I did not report it.
It must have been about five years later that I was stationed in London. Tower Hamlets – later, but earlier -- Nazia Akhtar wasn’t born yet. I was stationed that time with a good friend, so life was less lonely than usual. She had bought some wine over. I don’t usually drink much at all, but we were celebrating an exciting find, the rediscovery of a lost book. Tomorrow the serious work of committing it to memory would begin, but for now work could wait.
Both of us drank more than we intended and stayed up later than we intended, high in my bird’s nest of a flat. And when our jubilant conversation grew quieter, Yasmin told me a strange story about the time she once hauled a middle-aged woman out of a swimming pool and gave her mouth-to-mouth until she coughed up the water and breathed again. Her own horrified remembrance. How terrifying it was to open the Gate after that, not knowing what she would find. She wept and not only from the wine. And realised from my face that I was not entirely surprised.
How many such mistakes?
And as late-night confidences yielded to sober discussion, we decided to act. Gradually – as befits the prudence and restraint of a Reader – we began experimenting to see what was and what was not mutable about our past.
Theoretically, of course, we had been taught that ‘what’s done stays done.’ When Gates were first developed innumerable efforts were made. Agents were dispatched to despatch the architects of the Conflagration. To stop the Rwandan genocide. To undo the Holocaust. To unmake all of those sad litanies of atrocity. All failed. The Gate shut down. Agents were lost or arrived thousands of miles and years from their intended destinations. Only once it became clear that the past was a done deal – that our traffic was limited to what a human brain could bring through the Gate – only then did they become the preserve of the Readers.
But now it had turned out to be not so simple after all. For in our slow and tiresome minimalist meddling – which did not run to assassination attempts – we found that we were not quite as ghost-like as we had supposed. Casual interaction had never been a problem: dressed inconspicuously one fades unnoticed from the memory of the busy shop assistant, from the harried bus driver.
Observed, attended, by many eyes we were powerless – that is true. But unobserved, things proved otherwise. “Attention fixes events. Not occurrences,” we concluded. And help is sometimes possible where harm is not.
Our experimental conspiracy has lasted five years of now-time – maybe 10 of lived-time. Fazal is at university now and Edward has some grey in his hair. It makes him look distinguished, I think. The gap in years that was between us when we married is all but gone now and I suspect I shall change my job after a few more stints. I wouldn’t want to overtake him by too much. And the world has not ended in all of this.
But dear Reader, our conspiracy ends now, with these words. This morning as I walked to the market, someone pushed into me and I tripped. I was very lucky – I’d almost stepped out into a bus. Unlike long-lost long-dead Nazia, I have a hunch what hit me and a hint of things to come.
And I mean to tell the world.
For I have seen a future tense and caught a glimpse of the past perfect.